The Beauty of Sleep

Sleep is so important I cannot emphasize it enough. When you're lacking sleep, your body simply cannot do what it needs to do so your overall functioning decreases to a rather alarming level. I have seen comparisons between alcohol intoxication and sleep deprivation--and I'm not talking about days and days without sleep but just being "tired". (The studies suggest driving while sleepy is pretty much the same as driving while intoxicated--that's pretty scary!)

But even if you're not driving, you're just going about your day, but doing so with less than the recommended 8 hours per night (yes, that's for adults--its even higher for kids and teens!) you're still creating a vulnerability for yourself to mental and physical imparements.

Sleep is a huge problem for so many people. Some people suffer from sleep apnea (and some do but don't know it!) Some people suffer from insomnia, some people suffer from occasional insomnia, and some people feel that they're loosing valuable time by sleeping because they feel more productive in the regular sleep hours, so they choose to only get 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night.

Many people are aware that their sleep habits are unhelpful to their mental health but just don't know what to do about it. Here's my prescription for improved sleep and, consequently, improved mental health.

1. Set a time that is "bedtime" that is the same EVERY NIGHT OF THE WEEK. Even on the weekends! This time is, for most people, between 9pm and 11pm. Much after that and you're getting into a potential problem if life requires you to be up before 8am.

2. Set a time for "wake up" that is the same EVERY MORNING OF THE WEEK. Even on the weekends! This is, for most people, between 5am and 7am. If you have a more flexible work schedule or you don't have children that need to be at school or camp or where ever, you may have more flexibility in these times.

3. Aim for 8 hours of sleep EVERY NIGHT. If you know you've got to be at work at 8am, it takes you an hour to get ready and 30 minutes to get to the office, you need to be up between 6 and 6:30am. If your "bedtime" is midnight, you're not getting 8 hours of sleep, so you need to adjust your bedtime to 10 or 10:30pm. If you're currently getting only 4 hours of sleep at night, gradually lengthen the time by adding an extra 15 to 30 minutes per night or every other night until your body can adjust to the new schedule.

4. Now that you have a "sleep schedule", it would be wonderful if your body just konked out at 9pm and woke, fully refreshed every morning at 5am, right? It might eventually, but in the meantime, there are some things you can do to help facilitate sleep:

  • Do breathing exercises (in an upcoming Skill of the Month, I'll be talking about Abdominal Breathing, this is a great one to try).
  • About an hour or so before you want to go to bed, shut off all "devices" including TV, computers, cell phones, tablets, and video game systems.
  • Limit beverages the hour prior to bedtime.
  • Take a warm (not hot) bath or shower if this feels relaxing for you.
  • Read (a real book not on an e-reader unless it doesn't have its own light source) until you feel drowsy.
  • Make sure your room is sufficiently dark and all ambient light (from digital clocks, etc.) is dimmed as much as possible.
  • Make sure your sleep space is comfortable--not too hot or too cold.
  • If you find your mind thinking about all the things you need to do tomorrow or replaying the days events, try to focus on your senses: what do I hear right now? crickets, the motor of the fan, my partner softly snoring, the dog snuffling around, a cat outside, cars driving by... what do I feel right now? I feel the cool sheets, the breeze from the fan on my face, the fabric of my pajamas, the weight of the blanket... I feel the bed beneath me, supporting my weight, the pillow beneath my head, I feel the pillowcase on my hand, I feel my other hand on my stomach... what do I smell right now? (hopefully its pleasant fragrances like the scent of your dryer sheets, the crisp night air, the air freshner in your room, the scent of your shampoo on your pillow, evening-blooming flowers such as jasmine, etc.) You can also do sight and taste although hopefully you're not seeing much since your room is dark and hopefully your eyes are closed. Taste might be a quick one if you just brushed your teeth you can probably still taste your toothpaste or dental rinse.
  • Listen to a guided imagery CD specifically designed to facilitate sleep.
  • List in your head all the things for which you are grateful.
  • Make sure all of your devices are off or silent. It can be very disturbing to your sleep goal if you're receiving notifications all night long. I recommend charging devices outside of your room if possible to avoid not only the sounds but also the lights.
  • If you're still struggling, you could try turning on your light and writing in a journal about the things that are keeping you awake, or
  • Get out of bed and go into another room to write or do a crossword puzzle or something non-electronic. Make a hot cup of tea or have a light snack like a small apple or a few almonds.
  • If all else fails, you can just lay in your bed with your eyes closed and know that at least your eyes are getting rested and that's the most important thing. You can be assured that even if you don't fall asleep, at least you're resting quietly.

It may take several weeks (up to a few months) for your body to fully develop a new circadian rhythm so don't give up! The benefits of healthy sleep are worth the effort to get it!

This chart is taken from an infographic that is viewable in its entirety on Pinterest. Click the icon below and view this and other information in the board entitled "Sleep".